Is the Green Building Component of the Future…Rice Straw?
by Christopher Bloom
Could the hip, new green building component be rice straw? We know what some of you are wondering: Um, what is rice straw, anyway?
Rice straw is the remaining stalk left over from the rice plant after it’s been harvested. Until recently, it had no value – it’s so low in nutrients that it can’t be repurposed as feedstock – and disposing of it created headaches for farmers. The easiest way to clear a rice field had been to set it ablaze, but the smoke generated by burning rice stalks creates air pollution. California, the state with the most rice fields in the nation, effectively banned rice straw burning via the Connelly-Areias-Chandler Rice Straw Burning Reduction Act of 1991.
But even that practice could soon disappear, because it turns out that you can do something with rice straw after all. According to a new article in Architect Magazine, the official journal of the American Institute of Architects, a new, green medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is on the way, and yes, it’s made from rice straw. The new MDF product will source most of its straw from farms less than 25 miles away, which means less fuel consumed transporting the raw materials from farm to factory. Since it’s made from a straw, it’s renewable, and the adhesive being used will be free of formaldehyde, which is a known respiratory irritant and carcinogen. (You can read some of NCHH’s past blogs on formaldehyde here and here.)
As an added bonus, fiberboard made from rice straw also reduces methane emissions, though perhaps not in the way you’d expect. You see, the other way that farmers get rid of their rice straw is to flood their fields after they’ve harvested the rice. Not only does this practice waste a cringeworthy amount of water – itself a valuable commodity – but the decomposition process releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane absorbs the sun’s heat, which in turn warms the atmosphere (hence the term greenhouse gas).
Sarah Robinson-Enaharo is a product sustainability manager for one of the world’s largest flooring manufacturers, as well as a director on NCHH’s board; one of her concerns is to consider ways to repurpose byproducts and previously used materials. “Developing healthy living spaces is a major challenge facing humanity today. With a growing population estimated to be nine billion by 2050, we have to consider how we use all resources,” she cautions. “With that said, it’s exciting to see the growth of circularity in the construction industry. Transitioning from a linear economy to a circular one takes innovation, ingenuity, and collaboration. It’s a different mindset, a different business model, and it does not happen overnight. It takes an investment of time, money, and resources. This facility took vision, an investment of $315 million, and 20 years to come to fruition. With market demand continuing to push manufacturers to design healthier options, this company is an exemplar of how we can redesign our future.”
We love that this product has the potential to create another source of revenue for America’s farmers while using less water and creating less methane into the atmosphere – huge ecological wins. In an age where our news stream is inundated with reports of our impending doom as a result of our failure to mitigate the effects of climate change, despite having been being explicitly warned of it for over 30 years, it’s nice to hear that there are new building products on the way that are produced conscientiously.
Read the full Architect Magazine article here.
Christopher Bloom is NCHH’s communications and marketing officer. He joined NCHH in 2008 after nearly a decade in the real estate industry. In a previous role at NCHH, he coordinated a national Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) training program, one of the most successful in the nation. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Textual Studies from Syracuse University.